Masculinity, Patriarchy and the New Tenderness

“There is no alliance programmed once and for all”, writes Félix Guattari in his “Instructions for a New Psychoanalysis”. Nothing is felt more acutely by the adoptee. But this is precisely a source of discomfort; a difficult thing to affirm. The lack of a secure base makes the establishment (and natural disestablishment) of bonds a fraught and painful process — one that is constantly, anxiously pre-empted.

I remember my analyst talking about this early on, as he too sought to pre-empt the inevitable on my behalf. Our open-ended sessions can continue for as long as I feel they are necessary, he said, but it is also true that many people feel grief when therapy ends, and forethought of that moment can become an obstacle for the psychoanalytic process, in which the patient finds themselves already preparing for a withdrawal. It is a defense mechanism, and one that rears its head unconsciously at inopportune moments. I often feel it when at work. The anxiety that I might be fired or let go gives way to a diminished work ethic, as if I start to unconsciously give my employer excuses to rip off the band-aid. It is something my therapist and I are often aware of. At times when I become unconsciously unreceptive to the process, he calls me out, recognising that this alliance may need to be re-established. After all, though structured by certain ethical boundaries, psychoanalysis is the establishment of a quite intimate relationship like any other, functioning as a space where things can be said that would not be said elsewhere. But this must be held onto; it must be constantly reaffirmed.

This is the revolutionary potential of psychoanalysis for Guattari. “There had, ‘normally’, to have been some extraordinary situations for things to be said as they were on that couch!” In this sense, the psychoanalytic relation is predicated on a kind of alliance that “implies a conjunction with all things having to do with ‘new alliances’ made outside the office.” And this is something felt explicitly among my friends at present. It is of little surprise to me that those who have offered the most tender and kind support are those who are also already heavily “therapised”. As a result, the relations and productive conflicts established on the proverbial couch is replicated and weathered in the outside world with a new if relative ease. It has led to the establishment of very honest and communicative relationships that feel nothing short of revolutionary in their extraordinary tenderness. As Guattari argues: “Psychoanalysis is revolutionary or it is not real.” But it is not revolutionary in and of itself. It is revolutionary because of its impact on the wider world that the psychoanalytic subject inhabits, made clear by the relationships established beyond the couch, where things are nonetheless said with the same candid openness. These alliances feel like new sorts of relationship that reach down into the depths of our lives, which so many other relationships never quite touch or get anywhere near. We find ourselves expressing a frequent frustration, as we discuss the quotidian conflicts experienced with others around us. “If only everyone was this therapised!” Who knows what would be possible then.

It is intriguing to think of psychoanalysis in this way when faced with the scepticism of more straight-laced mental health services, which are couched explicitly within a system that limits the potential alliances on offer. And yet, they still attempt to offer new connections, particularly within one’s own community. But these connections nonetheless remain stuck within the bounds of various realisms, capitalist or otherwise. They are far from revolutionary.

I was discussing this yesterday with a friend whilst walking around a supermarket, buying crisps. We were talking repeatedly about the men in our lives, many of whom are causing problems unbeknownst to them, acting in ways that cause frictions that they seem wholly unaware of. What is this difficulty that men seem to have with expressing or possessing an awareness of their own conflicts? But she stopped us from going too far down this route. It’s not helpful, really, to make a certain emotional stuntedness or unavailability into a specifically masculine trait. I don’t have this problem, after all. And I am also a man, for better or worse.

My gendered appearance nonetheless seems to prefigure how various mental health professionals (on the NHS at least) chose to deal with me. In each of my conversations with nurses and crisis teams this week, for example, every single person has recommended I attend sessions of something called Andy’s Man Club, a UK mental health charity that offers “free-to-attend talking groups for men … challenging the stigmas around Male Mental Health.” I am sure these sessions are hugely beneficial for many, but I don’t see any personal need to attend. I don’t have any problem talking about my feelings. Quite the opposite. I write about them incessantly right here; I talk about them openly with my friends. I don’t identify with the system’s conception of a broken masculinity, nor do I particularly identify with the masculine stereotypes of society at large. I’ve never been “one of the guys”. But this isn’t some point of pride. This is no manipulative “I’m not like other men” badge of honour. There are so many men like me, cisgender or otherwise. My friend made this same point. For all the men in our lives that do seem to have problems with self-expression or self-awareness, there are plenty who don’t — particularly those who identify as queer or somehow queer-adjacent. And in that sense, I do not think this crisis of men’s mental health is a problem with men at all, but rather with patriarchy.

There is, undoubtedly, some crisis of masculinity that is occurring within patriarchy itself. This has been explored at length in recent years, particularly by reactionary figures like Jordan Peterson and others. But this is quite a different problem from a crisis within masculinity as such. It is instead the identification of a fissure within a social majority, which is not so much specifically gendered as it is determined by the perceived waning of certain sociopolitical relations of power. It is a problem within a majority, rather than a minority, and the inevitable response from so many reactionaries is to hardened the boundaries that they see becoming more porous. This is the wrong approach, as outlined by Deleuze and Guattari when they talk about a kind of “becoming-woman”:

There is no becoming-majoritarian; majority is never becoming. All becoming is minoritarian. Women, regardless of their numbers, are a minority, definable as a state or subset; but they create only by making possible a becoming over which they do not have ownership, into which they themselves must enter; this is a becoming-woman affecting all of humankind, men and women both.

The gendered nature of this kind of language inevitably leads to confusion, particularly within our present moment of a loud, reactionary and defensive gender essentialism, in which even some women seem to react against the shifting social boundaries occasioned by an anti-fascist maternal return. Becoming-woman, in this regard, as Virginia Woolf explores most beautifully, is the establishment of a new tenderness, the pursual — as previously discussed — of a new “concept of mothering that could serve as an alternative source of unity.” And this mothering, in itself, needn’t be so essentially gendered. Indeed, in order for this kind of relation to be revolutionary, it must far exceed the bounds of a normative conception of motherhood. There are so many other things — new subjectivities, new worlds, new tendernesses — that are struggling to be born.

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